How Your Beauty Products Are Killing Coral Reefs, Turtles, Rainforests + More

How Your Beauty Products Are Killing Coral Reefs, Turtles, Rainforests + More

As consumers we are becoming more and more educated of the health dangers posed by cosmetics and personal care products thanks to all those not-for-profit agencies working so hard to raise consumer awareness in hope that it forces brands to do better

However, the negative environmental footprint that our personal care products leave behind on our beautiful planet is not knowledge that the everyday consumer is aware of.  


What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make - Jane Goodall


So what effect are all the trillions of beauty products having on the planet. Here’s a look at what the beauty industry is doing to the natural world around us.


‘Natural’ Is Destroying Our Planet

Companies are cashing in on the word ‘natural’ , they seem to think by putting a few natural ingredients in their product makes their product natural – even though it is overflowing with other chemical and toxic ingredients.

Here's where it gets interesting.  Because more companies are seeking out natural ingredients (so they can put natural on their bottle) the demand for natural ingredients has increased at an unsustainable level. In order to supply the rising demand means that more farming and mining needs to occur. Now; this would be a wonderful thing if it was done sustainably. However big companies want to buy it in mass quantities and they want it cheap and fast. 

So forget about sustainable farming and mining – more pesticides are being sprayed in the earth and more human rights are being exploited. When done mindlessly the mining of minerals and oils for natural ingredients  disrupts ecosystems and depletes non-renewable natural resources.  

This Now  Brings Me To Palm Oil 

So whats's the deal with Palm Oil? And is there a sustainable way to farm it.

The answer is kinda "no".

Firstly, most of us are aware of the destructive deforestation that happens with the majority of palm oil production. To keep up with the incredibly high demand for the cheaply produced oil, acres of rainforest are being cut down at alarming rates - leading to a loss of animal habitat for endangered species.

In the past 16 years, the quest for palm oil has led to the death of an estimated 100,000 orangutans, according to research.   

Other animals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers are also at risk. 

Over the years we have seen the introduction of sustainable palm oil. However, there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil.

And the reasoning is; to produce palm oil, the fruit is collected from the trees, which can live an average of 28 to 30 years. However, once the trees grow too high, making it difficult to reach the fruit, they are cut down and the forest is set alight to make room for new trees - which still contributes to deforestation of the rainforest. This process happens no matter if it is sustainable palm oil or not.

Bottom line is, that there is no way to produce sustainable palm oil that did not come from deforestation, and those sustainable claims by corporations, certification schemes and non government organisations are simply ‘greenwashing’.  If a company uses palm oil, certified or not, they are most definitely destroying tropical forests.

Today, almost all chocolate, shampoo, chips, household cleaning products, cosmetics, and even pet foods use palm oil - many of them claiming they use "sustainable palm oil"

It is often difficult to tell which products contain palm oil though, because Australian guidelines allow more generic terms like "vegetable oil" or "vegetable fat" to be listed on product packaging instead.

And palm oil is the most widely used "vegetable oil" in the world.

The best way to ensure you are not supporting palm oil is is to avoid any product that reads "vegetable oil". 

Your Sunscreen Could Be Damaging Coral Reefs 

A common chemical ingredient used in almost every sunscreen is ‘Oxybenzone’ also known as ‘Benzophenone-3’. This is an active chemical that absorbs UVA and UVB rays, therefore protecting the skin from the sun. Whilst this ingredient does a very effective job at protecting your skin, it is also having a very negative impact on the world’s coral reefs. Research has shown that sunscreens that contain oxybenzone have been contributing to the bleaching of the coral reefs.

Every time we apply sunscreen we are killing the coral reef  - it will either wash off in the ocean, river or lake when we go swimming or it will trickle down the drain when we take a shower. All bodies of water eventually make their way to the ocean.

The studies show that Oxybenzone damages the coral’s DNA and interferes with the reproduction and growth of young coral. Coral reefs house diverse ecosystems that provide habitat and food for many marine organisms, they also generate billions of tourist dollars to local economies.   It is important we keep them alive.

When buying sunscreen look for ingredients that contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide instead. These compounds act like a mirror, reflecting the sun’s rays. They are not only better for our health but also much less damaging for the environment.

Are You Feeding The Turtles Your Wet Wipes?

Most of us at some point have used wet wipes, whether it is to clean our face, remove make-up or clean up a babies bum. At some point we have all probably flushed one down the loo - after all they do say flushable.

Today I am here to tell you that wet wipes are anything but flushable. Even the ones that say they are bio-degradable still wreak havoc with our sewage systems, oceans and marine life.

They clog up sewage systems, don't bio-degrade and by the time they make their way into the ocean, they get ingested by sea creatures, such as turtles, who mistake them for jellyfish and eventually die. Even if you don't flush your wet wipes, they end up in landfill where the toxic chemicals used to make the wet wipe seep into the soil and poison our earth. A far better option is to avoid using wet wipes in the first place - and if you really feel like you can't live without them, then choose a non-toxic one and dispose of it in the bin.

Behind The Gloss Of All That Beautiful Packaging

The packaging of cosmetics and personal care products also has damaging effects to the environment. All those plastic bottles and tubes that hold shampoo, moisturisers, our favourite shade of lipstick and an array of other products, these all end up in either our oceans or landfills where they leach toxins into the environment and can take hundreds of years to break down.

Then there are all the micro-beads  -the tiny balls of plastic used in body scrubs, toothpastes and body exfoliators. Some products can contain over 300,000 micro-beads – per tube. These micro-beads get washed down our drains and make there way into the ocean where marine animals ingest them, this then blocks the marine animals digestion tract and causes them to die.

The beauty industry has come under fire in recent years for its use of micro-beads, and as a result of consumer demand several companies are opting to slowly phase them out.

When buying products choose to go plastic free and opt for product packaging made with glass and recycled paper. Even better - many companies are dropping the packaging and are up-cycling bottles or using little to no packaging.

The Slow Poisoning Of Our Planet

The chemical components of many products don’t break down and instead accumulate in our ecosystems. Cosmetics and personal care products do their most damage to the environment after they are washed down our sinks. The chemicals are recycled into our lakes, streams, rivers and public water systems. Here are some of the most environmentally damaging chemicals used in cosmetics, including which products you’ll find them in and what effect they have on our ecosystems.

  1. P-phenylenediamine is a dangerous, coal-tar derived chemical most often found in dark hair colouring and lipsticks. P-phenylenediamine has long term toxic effects on aquatic ecosystems. It diminishes the animal plankton population, alters fish behaviour and causes death in many aquatic species. Read my  report on Why We Should Care About Water Pollution
  2. The cosmetics preservatives BHA and BHT also alter behaviour and causes death in fish and shellfish. BHA and BHT also cause genetic mutations in amphibians. BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants that are found in many lipsticks and moisturizers.
  3. Dioxane is a carcinogenic, endocrine disruptive chemical that contaminates many cosmetic ingredients, including polyethylene glycols, sodium laureth sulfate and siloxane, during the manufacturing process. There are steps companies can take to remove dioxane contaminants but the methods are costly and time consuming so most companies don’t bother. Dioxane is found in cream based cosmetics, shampoos, moisturizers, soaps and bubble baths. When washed down the drain and introduced into aquatic ecosystems it alters fish behaviour, growth and increases fish mortality. Dioxane also causes death to insects, alters the formation and population of plant plankton, and causes behaviour changes, population decline and death in animal plankton.
  4. Dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, is the chemical added to nail polish to keep the paint from becoming brittle. DBP is a plasticizer, and is also used to make PVC pipe. DBP is introduced into the environment when polish is removed and discarded, either down the drain or into the trash can. DBP accumulates in the environment and affects a wide variety of aquatic species. DBP has been linked to altered behaviour, biochemistry, genetics, growth, and reproduction cycles of fish. It is also known to cause genetic mutation in amphibians and population declines in both animal and plant plankton. A highly DBP toxic environment causes death to all organisms in the ecosystem.
  5. Triclocan, the antibacterial chemical used in cleansers, hand-sanitizers, deodorant, and laundry detergent, is also capable of accumulating in the environment. Products that contain triclocan are almost always washed down the sink and introduced to aquatic ecosystems. Triclocan has been shown to change the biochemistry of amphibians, fish and aquatic plants. It is also linked to genetic mutation in amphibians and animal and plant planktons. The reproductive cycles, population, and growth patterns of plant and animal planktons, aquatic plants, amphibians and fish are also effected by tirclocan pollution. As with dibutyl phthalate, a highly triclocan toxic environment is fatal to all organisms in the ecosystem.
  6. Diethanolamine, or DEA, is added to almost every cosmetic and personal care product on the market. This chemical is used as a ph adjuster, and balances the acidic properties of the other chemicals in the product. DEA accumulates in the environment and also reacts with nitrates to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are highly carcinogenic to both human and animal life. DEA contamination has been linked to behaviour, reproductive and population changes in animal and plant plankton. It is fatally toxic to amphibians, crustaceans, fish, nematodes, flatworms, and animal plankton.


Cosmetic chemicals are not just hazardous to aquatic life. All life on Earth is dependent on the water cycle. Water vaporizes into the atmosphere, re-accumulates into clouds, then re-liquefies and returns to the Earth as rain. The chemicals that have been introduced into aquatic ecosystems evaporate along with the water and are then transferred to other areas through rain. Cosmetic related chemicals have been found in rivers, oceans, streams, lakes, public water supply, agricultural soil and even household dust particles. 

The environmental effects of cosmetic chemicals are far reaching, but there are steps consumers can take to keep these toxins out of the environment. Consumer demand has already led to some companies removing these chemicals from their products. There are resources online that provide lists of these safe companies and products. 

Apart from the chemical makeup of products consumers should also educate themselves on the sustainability of the ingredients used. Products like coconut oil and aloe vera are easily renewable. 

Finally, consumers should consider the type of packaging products come in. Some companies have taken the initiative to use only ecologically safe packaging or no packaging at all. Look for recyclable plastic bottles, simple paper wrapping or reusable glass packaging to keep product waste out of the landfills.

With education and responsible purchasing practices, consumers have the power to stop the pollution caused by cosmetics and their toxic chemicals.

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